The Sept. 11 commission is shaking up the 2004 presidential campaign, helping to make a key political issue of its recommended changes in the nation's intelligence system and reshaping the anti-terrorism platforms of President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.
The commission's report criticized U.S. intelligence failures and cited systemic flaws in intelligence gathering. Since the report's release three weeks ago, the lobbying by commission members for action on their recommended policy changes not only has forced Congress and the White House to respond but also has driven the politics on one of the campaign's most important issues, the war on terrorism, analysts and advisers to both campaigns say.
Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, has seized on the report to bolster his anti-terrorism message and beat back accusations from Republicans that he is indecisive. He endorsed the panel's 41 recommended policy changes two days after they were issued, called on Congress to skip its August recess to write them into law and asked Bush to extend the life of the commission. This allowed Kerry to "become the leader on the 9/11 issue" for the first time, a senior Kerry adviser asserted. Now, the report is the heart of his anti-terrorism platform and campaign strategy.
Bush, who initially opposed creation of the commission, last week dropped his opposition to two of its most prominent recommendations: creation of a national director of intelligence post and of a federal intelligence clearinghouse. Yesterday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice indicated that Bush might also accept giving budgetary and staffing authority to the new intelligence director.
The president has made clear he wants to go slower than the fast-tracked pace Kerry and the commission members want. The Bush campaign has accused Kerry of blindly endorsing the commission's work for political gain. Kerry is showing his "anti-terror agenda is whatever can get him short-term political advantage," Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said in an interview.
The continued prominence of the Sept. 11 commission underscores how it, unlike the scores of commissions before it in U.S. history, will play an unusually important role in the presidential and congressional elections, advisers to Bush and Kerry and political historians say.
The commission is set to expire Aug. 21, but Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said in an interview last week that panel members hope to obtain private funding to sustain their lobbying campaign at least through the election. They want to pressure Bush, Kerry and Congress to cement their recommendations into law this year.
Kean and the nine other commissioners plan to appear before at least 10 congressional committees; hold public meetings in several cities, including some in election battleground states; and maintain their regular presence on television news programs. "We want to be part of the debate," Kean said.
In an interview with the New York Times, Kean said voters should factor candidates' responses to the commission's report into their voting decisions. Many relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks plan to monitor the presidential and congressional candidates and pressure those who do not aggressively seek to implement the proposed intelligence changes.
Even if the commissioners and victims' relatives recede into the background of the election -- which is unlikely considering that the third anniversary of the attacks is in the midst of the campaign and the issue of terrorism is such a dominating one -- Kerry is planning to make the commission report a major issue almost every week until Election Day, his advisers say.
The report has resonated with the public, leading strategists from both sides to say the Bush and Kerry campaigns must contend with the recommendations. The paperback version of the report is a national bestseller, a first for such a commission report, and polling shows nearly two-thirds of voters approve of the panel's deliberations. A Pew Foundation poll conducted a few days before the report was released indicated the commission enjoyed strong and similar support among Republicans, Democrats and independents. A new Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans want the commission to continue its work.
"Bush has got to act because if, God forbid, something happens, he's to blame" for not moving decisively, said Stephen J. Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University. "Kerry is trying to protect himself, too. If there is a terrorist attack . . . he wants to be able to say [Bush] did not do enough."
Not since the Kerner Commission on urban riots reported its findings in 1968 has an outside commission shaken up a presidential election the way the Sept. 11 panel has, historians say.
The Kerner Commission, named after its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, determined that urban rioting in places such as Detroit was attributable to a deep-seated racism in the United States that was fomenting "two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal." The report was a major issue in the Democratic primary but was often overwhelmed by Vietnam and other issues in the general election race between Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard M. Nixon. The Kerner report, which recommended education and employment initiatives, never prompted swift or widespread action from Congress or the White House. Nixon's victory doomed many of the recommendations.
Other famous commissions such as the Roberts Commission investigating Pearl Harbor in the early 1940s and the Warren Commission probing the assassination of John F. Kennedy two decades later never dominated political campaigns. Indeed, most commissions -- frequently established for work too controversial for elected officials to handle -- have fleeting fame and influence, if any.
The Sept. 11 commission is different, historians say, because of an unusual marriage of timing and circumstance. Few commissions have received such high marks from both parties for their investigations, hearings and recommendations. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, set the tone by holding both parties accountable for past failures and current actions.
More important, observers say, the commission was dealing with an issue that is dominating election-year discussions and decided to inject itself into the campaign by publicly lobbying for its ideas. When Bush elevated the alert level in New York, Washington and Newark on Aug. 1, commissioners swung into action, saying the potential terrorist attacks should serve as a wake-up call to candidates to promptly embrace their recommendations.
Not everyone is pleased with the rally-around-the-commission spirit. Allan J. Lichtman, a political historian and presidential scholar at American University, said calls for a far-reaching, immediate overhaul of the nation's massive intelligence apparatus is "most unwise."
"It's not as if adopting this tomorrow will make us safer," Lichtman said. "In the short run, it may make us less safe because of the chaos." Lichtman said it was a mistake for Kerry to bless the commission's work without more thought given to future consequences. "It shows a lack of consideration of the facts," he said.
Several Republicans and some Democrats on Capitol Hill agree that such a large government reorganization would require greater study and should be put off until after the election.
Kean disagrees. "I worry more about delay, about being put off another a year and [to] a new Congress," he said.
Kerry, more than Bush, shares Kean's impatience. The Massachusetts senator is planning to emphasize the issue in the weeks ahead, aides say, by working with the commissioners to press for quick implementation.
Kerry believes Bush is most vulnerable politically for refusing so far to provide such an intelligence director with the budgetary and appointment powers the commission called for and for "foot-dragging" on the other 40 recommendations, a top aide said. But Kerry also plans to use the report as a shield from attacks over his positions on issues such as expanding the battle in Afghanistan and securing nuclear weapons, the aide said.
"In the months ahead, we will use the 9/11 commission's recommendations to validate [Kerry's] approach to the war on terror . . . and prove that our approach is more effective," said James P. Rubin, a top national security adviser to Kerry.
Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, said yesterday that the president is working on adopting most of the commission's recommendations. "The fact that we've already begun implementing 36 of the 41 [recommendations] has enabled us to get in front of it," she said on "Fox News Sunday." "It's good work. We need to improve on it. But that's why it was important for us to take the time to read it, to understand it and to move forward with it."
Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, said the president will try to push the debate beyond the commission. "One of the most important issues of this election . . . is how do we reform government to deal with this anti-terrorism threat," he said. In the end, Mehlman said Bush will prove his ideas are superior to Kerry's -- and those of the commission.